Thursday, August 27, 2015

On This Planet

Spooky, Scary, Problematic

It's that time of year already, when people start planning their ridiculous, racist, sexist "costumes" for October 31st.
Below is my response when a (POC) friend of mine asked if she should "dress up" as Pocahontas for Halloween.

That's an interesting question. I think perhaps it could be done, as you said, tastefully. But I'd be *really* careful about what "costume" elements you purchase and from where. Do not walk into a Disney princess store and buy a synthetic, brown short, tattered "Indian dress" with colored feathers and then just tell people you're Pocahontas. That benefits people/companies who have been exploiting native people for centuries and makes a joke of an entire culture. Do some research, figure out where the real Pocahontas was actually from. What tribe? Does that tribe still exist? Can you purchase authentic garments from native artists to support their craft and their work? If not, I'd say don't do it because you're essentially representing a culture that isn't your own, which is appropriation, and can be really hurtful and offensive to those groups.
I personally wouldn't ever do it because I'm not part of that culture and haven't ever been invited to take part in it. If you're willing to put in some work to try to make it a positive representation, then okay. But I wouldn't be surprised if, after all that learning, you didn't want to dress up as her anymore.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Letters to My White Family Cont'd

This is my second response to my white family member after they sent me an email on 2/28/14 (read the first response here). This particular part of the conversation was sparked by a piece I posted about Spike Lee on gentrification in NYC.
Names and identifying details changed in the interest of privacy:


Okay. Yes, there is going to be some overlap with the types of disadvantage people experience, even if people are experiencing it for different reasons. It was wrong for that lady to assume that [our relative]'s identity didn't lead her to experience some of the same symptoms of oppression as someone of a different identity.
However, that doesn't mean that [our relative] knows what it's like to be black because part of her struggle was the same. I'm not saying you're saying that, but just because there's tons of overlap in the type of discrimination experienced, does not mean that the REASON for that oppression will be the same.
So in discussion about racial oppression, talking about poor white people isn't going to help disassemble the oppression of black people. It can help build ties between communities because both groups can rally against the shared oppression.
But the root causes of the oppression must be examined in order to disintegrate the structure of oppression. And if everyone is throwing all of their own personal oppression into the discussion at once, there are going to be too many root causes to examine to tackle them all.

The Spike Lee piece was DEFINITELY about race. I don't think anyone is arguing that it's not. However, I think that since he wasn't specific in saying blatantly, "rich, socially well-connected, white people are moving in" you are thinking he's taking about any white people who move in those neighborhoods as bad. I obviously can't ask him who he was talking about, but him saying that "hipsters" have moved in and taken over the neighborhood, is not about poor white people trying to get by. He is talking about people with affluence moving to those neighborhoods and ruining the preexisting community.
I'm not saying the poor white people who live there aren't disenfranchised, because belonging to the identity "poor" puts them at a disadvantage, certainly. However, that disadvantage is very different than the racial disadvantage of poc in those neighborhoods. He's pointing out, in stark contrast how these neighborhoods are dealt with *before* affluent white people move in (when it's just a few poor whites and mostly black people)and *after* those affluent white people move in.
He never said that it isn't sad that because the poor white people live there, they experience "trickle down discrimination", as a result of the mistreatment of the black community that surrounds them. He'd probably say that's very sad. But his point is that it's obvious that when black people live in these areas, no one cares about these places, but as soon as white communities come in, they are able to leverage their white privilege to get other people with control and privilege to care and tend to the issues there.
It's about disrespect, and lack of regard for black people by society at large, which has long been an issue on social justice fronts.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Letters to My White Family

This is the first response in a set of email communications with someone in my white family.
I'm sharing this for white friends and family who are trying to understand their own privilege and come to terms with what it means to engage respectfully in dialogue with those who are less privileged, particularly when it comes to race.
I'm not the authority, and this was the best explanation I could come to with my family.
Names and identifying details changed in the interest of privacy:


That's understandable. I think I see where our definitions diverge; it's a subtle difference. To you, lighter skin AND wealth AND social status equals a person who is "privileged".
The definition that I have come to understand and that I have heard in most social justice seminars is that a person can have privilege in just one area, or more. It doesn't make them a "privileged individual", it just means that they have unearned advantage in one or some areas of their life. That doesn't make them bad, that doesn't make them wrong, they simply have unearned advantages that some others don't (in those specific areas).
You're operating on an "identity #1 and identity #2 and identity #3= PRIVILEGE" formula ; while I operate on an "identity #1 or identity #2 or identity #3=PRIVILEGE" formula.

This is why the term "intersectionality" is so important to these discussions. In the story you just told me, you mentioned several different groups that you belong to:
1) you identify as cis
2) you identify as someone who grew up poor
3) you identify as white racially
4) and (I'm going to say because of our other discussions where you listed yourself as an ally) you identify as heterosexual.

These are just four categories of an infinite list of identities that people/you might have.
Other identities might be:
Physical capability
Native Language
Citizenship Status
Given Name
Social Connections
And the list goes on.

And having privilege in one area does not take away from the validity of your experience, nor does it take away from the validity of those single identities.
I know that you grew up in your home town and that you were the racial minority. I know that being white there is a difficult identity to have. That is valid and I'm sorry that your experience there was so shaded by other people's bias and hate.

This is where the word "privilege" can be hard for people. You're not alone; almost no one likes saying they are privileged because it usually makes people feel like a jerk.
I completely understand and empathize with the reaction "how can you call me privileged? I grew up piss poor in a family with not many educated people, went to school hungry, didn't have rich parents, and had to work hard all of my life to get by." I understand that reaction because I've reacted that exact same way myself. It's hard to acknowledge privilege because you don't want other people to discount those other valid parts of your identity. But in a truly safe, social justice oriented space, no one is asking you to do that. You can still acknowledge specific benefits to some parts of your life and still also acknowledge the struggle of the other parts. It doesn't mean you struggled any less than you did. It doesn't take away from that fight, it's just a different side of who you are.

I hated thinking about my privilege (and still often do) but not thinking about it affects people I care about in ways that are unfair* and I want to help them by changing those unfair things. The only way to change things is to first acknowledge it exists, and to acknowledge that a difference in the distribution of resources or the access to resources exists.

My friend, Meghan is a really spunky, fun individual. She likes to joke around and be active outdoors with her dog. I often bump into her while she's running errands and we usually stop to catch up. HOWEVER, Meghan has to deal with a lot more adversity than I do when it comes to accomplishing those tasks because she is in a wheelchair.

-I can get on the bus really quickly with almost no hitch.
-When Meghan boards a bus, it takes nearly ten minutes for the driver to lower the bus, unfold the wheelchair ramp, anchor her chair to the wall of the bus, fold the wheelchair ramp, and then move the bus. 
And all of this is happening amongst angry whispers and mean stares about how long she is making everything take. When really, if the system was better equipped to deal with wheelchairs, it might not take so long.
She also sometimes has to go past her stop on the subway because not all stops are accessible with an elevator.

But here's the other reason why I bring her up. She said to me once that she ABSOLUTELY can't stand when people don't pick up their dog's poop.
I'm not a fan of that either, but I didn't understand why she'd care that much.
I asked her why and she told me, 
"because when I don't see it coming, I roll my chair wheels in it, and I push my wheels with my hands."

My mind exploded. I had never even thought of the fact that if someone did something as simple as not pick up after their dog, Meghan might end up with shit on her hands, literally.

That is why we need to acknowledge privilege. Because we might be shitting on someone (maybe someone we care about) and not even know it. This is why engaging in dialogue with people who don't have the same privilege as us is important, so that we can learn how to be more self aware, more socially responsible and conscious, and more considerate.

I know I said earlier that in a truly safe, social justice space, no one is asking you to relinquish the parts of you that incurred struggle. But I also know that *finding* spaces like that can be incredibly difficult. And sometimes those spaces can feel like they are asking for you to leave parts of yourself at the door. 

Here's the thing: in some discussions, where the topic revolves around an area of your identity where you have privilege, you have to check yourself and be mindful of the fact that privilege is franchise. 
Disadvantage equals DISFRANCHISEMENT. 

Those who struggle in a particular area have less voice and are often less heard than those who have privilege in those areas.
If the discussion is about the struggles of being in a wheel chair, and someone brings up ways in which able-bodied people are not disadvantaged, that is not the time to remind everyone in the room of all the other areas in your life where you do struggle. 

It's not always about you or me. Sometimes you have to let those areas of struggle take a back seat, because they are not directly part of the issue at hand and bringing them up will only conflate and slow down the discussion of alleviating the disparity of access and privilege.

Like you and I said before, these issues are really complicated and  multidimensional so obviously this email is not an exhaustive explanation of privilege or of intersectional identities. I just hope this clarifies the groundwork that I have in regards to discussing privilege and allows us to more easily parse out its different dynamics without anyone feeling hurt or personally attacked.

This is long, so just let me know when you're finished reading.


*unfair meaning "unjust" but that seemed too lofty at the time I was writing this

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Fox Watching the Hen: Devouring POC Space

I went to a social justice space the other day which was for POC (People of Color) only. I tried not to talk too much because I am not "POC only", and I look white. At the group discussion I felt the need to chime in on the issue of interracial dating. Someone questioned why I was there: "ain't she white?" and it became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. I lost myself in carefully humbling my whiteness to this black bodied person (which is so necessary but happens with white folks so infrequently). But in doing so, my comments sounded more like white guilt than useful dialogue. I was irreverently taking up the space I said I wouldn't and I was rambling. God, I was going on and looping circuitous comments together and passing them along as insight because what was I even going to say before that nervous joke- something about dating white people? "I dunno; that's all I had to say." came out instead. I was distracted by the flash-bang of my own whiteness.

After the meeting, a friend of mine said she felt protective of me because of that person's comments about my whiteness. She felt the need to "vouch" for me.

I decided a long time ago it is wrong for me to seek racial catharsis at the expense of my brown (half) brothers and sisters*; if they are uncomfortable with me, I leave. But I think, often, my friends don't see the politics behind this. They see me, seemingly lonely, looking as marginalized as it is possible for a white-bodied person to look and they want to help. They (one) drop me back into a conversation in which I don't necessarily belong:
My hair is not dangerous.
My presence is not startling.
My self-love can never be radical.

When I come to these events, I know I can be distracting, and frankly, the fact that I know this to be true means I really shouldn't be there at all, but I lack community- and if it wouldn't look elitist/colorist, I'd  have my own group for white-passing POC because that might be less onerous on visible POC. But I'm here and I'm trying to get a grasp on this tinted life, which means I need community.

But, when I'm here, I don't want you (POC) to support me. That is the opposite of my intent.
POC should not be supporting white people, especially not for being an "ally". I don't get a gold star for being a human being and acknowledging POC are just that: people.

To be honest, I initially felt a wave of gratitude. So infrequent is it that a POC/WOC validates my identity (albeit rife with contradictions). It's usually something people who are close to me express. But almost immediately, the gratitude for this gift of acknowledgement, of support, turned into the realization that, in taking this support I am also taking up the emotional and mental energy of a person of color with my almost whiteness. I said this to her, because not saying it felt like not saying thank you to Santa at Christmas.

I wanted to shake Santa and say, "It's okay; I don't get it".

Besides the space I take, there's a real level of discomfort I cause POC in my life. They have to reconcile the fact that I, a white looking person, have been admitted by them into the most intimate parts of their lives; that as WOC we discuss and sometimes even bond over racial tensions and anxieties.

So I think they are sometimes trying to deal with the cognitive dissonance that accompanies creating safe, black-only space while allowing me, a very white-skinned person, into that very same space.

"Clair is like Mariah Carey [Thanks!]. You can tell something's off because she looks white but she's black; she just came out wrong [Thanks?]." This is the way one POC friend of mine used to describe me. And it was okay because I did feel like I came out "wrong".

They want to validate the blackness in me but can't do that without making the whiteness in me purr.

They want to feed my hunger for solidarity because they know what it's like to lack community, but allowing myself that indulgence on a group political level is an affront to my values as a supporter of the community. I am essentially, in practice, an ally. Because, even asserting my space as a "black woman" feels like a colonizing of my own body, a comfortable lie my whiteness wants me to slip into: "You're tired. You're POC. Take a break from this hyper-vigilence." The fox is guarding my hen house and I need to be "awake" enough to keep it at bay.

I have an indefatigable source of power and energy which is my whiteness, so I vow to use it so it won't fester and become the all consuming guilt we often hear about.
This means watching every last video of police brutality, this means keeping racist and bigoted "friends" on my Facebook so they can ask me those invasive or ignorant questions, this means doing research on social justice rights and violations.
Above all, it means taking shit from POC.

When  they don't like how much air time I'm taking up, I need to be okay with that because they will always be more racially fatigued than I am.

I'm not Tim Wise; I do this because, though I don't have a claim in the black community, these are my people. These are my family, people I love and whose deaths I mourn. And it has nothing to do with "charity" or "saving" them. And that's how I know I'm black.

That's why I allow myself the label "white-passing POC", because for white people, this work is an exhausting battle they don't have to face. There is nothing intrinsically urgent or mandatory in these stories for them, and when a person of color "dare" to confront them about the space they take, sometimes they say "Well, I'm only here because you need me here. I'm doing this for you." But for me, it isn't like that. This is very much for me. It is a pleasure to fight amongst my community because I feel at home here.

This home is our hard-earned, gated community that keeps us safe, at least in theory.
It is a salve on the wounds from the slaughtered POC and the anger we feel, and the deep whirling depression and anxiety that blows through our neighborhoods like a storm every time another one of us gets shot. And it protects us from people who try to waltz into our space and belch loudly "all lives matter".

I know what my version of that indignation feels like, and it's not because I'm "human"; it's because I'm black.

So, really, it's okay for people to ask "aren't you white?", because visibly, I am. I want them to question me. It's also okay to not want me around, because I know what it's like to long for black only community. I want POC to question me and have a voice, especially when talking to a white face because that's the whole point of my activism, not to be on a soapbox, but to carve out a space for trans, queer, fat, brown bodies the space they deserve to talk. If that space comes from my own ground, then all the better. Safe space is the best of what I have to give.

*This is meant to include trans POC.